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My first cellmate in Kashgar

The Uyghur writer and language scholar Abduweli Ayup is one of hundreds of people who have been imprisoned in the so-called re-education camps in the Xinjiang Province. His crime was speaking and teaching in Uyghur. Here we publish an extract from his forthcoming prison memoirs. “I was unaware and never even imagined that we would face this kind of abuse and insult,” he writes.

Credits Text: Abduweli Ayup Illustration: Kajsa Nilsson April 06 2020

Whenever I think about the danger of speaking Uyghur, his image always comes to mind, his name was Emetqari, my first cellmate in Kashgar. On that day, my greeting was ignored by Emetqari. He had answered my greeting with an empty stare. I was surprised to hear from the officers who had brought me there, that Emetqari was a political prisoner. In my mind, political prisoners are more Uyghur than others, they always want to stress their Uyghurness, and they should respond to a salutation coming from a fellow Uyghur brother.

The fact that the Uyghurs can’t have this kind of social exchange between them under the shadow of the Chinese regime have divided them into two groups; those that greet fearlessly and those that don’t. A Uyghur who hadn’t the courage to answer to my greeting in our own mother tongue simply couldn’t be a political prisoner. After the prison guard locked me up in the cell, Emetqari remained by the cell door for a long time and then sat down with his head turned down.

I regretted worrying too much about the consequences and the people that probably would have been arrested following my escape and didn’t actually run away. I could have escaped, because I knew two weeks ago that I would be arrested. When a documentary about me was not allowed to be broadcast on Kashgar's television, someone had whispered the reason into my ear. The state security bureau of Kashgar had issued an order that forbade all newspapers and news agencies from visiting me for interviews or spreading any information from me. After a week a friend of mine, who I had cooperated with when opening a Uyghur mother language school, had decided to desist from opening a kindergarten. He had told me that I would be arrested. At that time, I thought of running away, but the friend who had given me this piece of information would have been arrested. The officer who told me this would have been apprehended, my friends and all my relatives would have fallen into the unceasing persecution of the regime.

Not only did I regret not escaping from my homeland, but I also regretted returning from the States. I faced horrible abuse that wasn’t even mentioned in the books which described the treatment of Uyghur intellectuals in the Chinese prisons ever since 1949. Their countenance gave away their ferociousness, the tattoos of dragons on their chests and arms manifested their savagery even more, they asked me to strip off, and I was turned into a diversion and was being played like a monkey in a circus. The monkeys that surrounded me were riding me one after another. When I was arrested, I had imagined nail pulling, electric shocks, being hung up and beaten, but I had never imagined they had thought of that way to humiliate me. At that moment I realized and I fantasized about how nice it would have been to have just been killed by a bullet, knife, or … simply hanging myself.

My professor at the university of Kansas had given me a scholarship lasting for 38 months, allowing me to do my PhD research in the US, and I could have given my daughter and wife a safe and happy life. When I told my friend, Anwar, that I wanted to return and open a Uyghur language school in order to protect and preserve the Uyghur language, he immediately disapproved. According to him a person like me, who through my writings have made bold comparisons between the democratic system of the US and the Chinese authoritarian regime, have revealed how dictatorship puts a black shadow on one’s soul and consumes it bit by bit and what kind of a rotting effect the communist ideology has had on a culture, such a person would definitely not be able to get beyond the airport and would be sent instantly to prison. He tried to convince me to stay and when my return was only one week away, he called me every day. One day he said “I am not joking when I tell you I won’t let you leave. If you keep insisting, I will tie you up and keep you in my basement until you cave in and decide to remain here. If I keep you long enough your Visa will expire and as a result you won’t be able to leave”.

The last warning or opportunity for escape was made apparent on the 15th of August 2013. After 30 unsuccessful calls, a young Uyghur boy tried to get hold of me through my wife. We met, and he told me that I will be arrested in a matter of days and so I have to save myself. He advised me to go through the files on my computer, phone and USB-sticks. This guy, who had appeared out of the blue disappeared as if he never existed. Despite his warnings and several others’ prior to this, I didn’t escape. I had heard that people were leaving through Vietnam. It had come to my attention that there was widespread propaganda aimed especially at the Uyghur youth, appealing and persuading them to leave their homeland and emigrate. One of my friends had already escaped to Turkey through Malaysia. But I couldn’t make the same decision. I was the one who had criticised the articles about the emigration campaign, discouraged people from leaving in my speeches, telling them that leaving in swarms will lead to the extinction of the Uyghurs. How can you preserve a culture outside, in a foreign land with its own distinct culture and language? When a foreigner settles in a foreign country, the foreigner, is expected to integrate and adapt as much as possible to the new culture. Thus, replacing one’s own culture and language. This trend effects mildly the first generation, but the second generation will experience this effect more intensively and its questionable if the culture of the first generation can survive into the second. In the face of these facts I talked continuously to people and wanted to prevent them from leaving our homeland – the only place where the Uyghur culture can thrive. By making this kind of speeches, I felt I was already prevented from escaping. In my articles, I had promised my readers that I would be with my followers even in the face of death, hence there were no excuses.

Though I so courageously or perhaps foolishly decided to remain here with my Uyghurs, I couldn’t sleep at night and wondered when there would be a knock on my door. I was thinking of appearing before them if they came and prevent them from disturbing my wife who slept embracing our five-month-old baby girl Uyghuriye, and prevent my six-year-old daughter, Mesude, from becoming hostile to men in police uniforms. I was perturbed thinking that if they take me while my mother, who has heart problems, is watching she might collapse. Thus, I avoided visiting her. I spent my days in a luxuriant poplar-lined suburban street of Kashgar working on the opening of the Uyghur mother tongue school, in this way at least during the day I stopped myself from worrying. I didn’t say anything to anyone, not even to my brother who had retired after working as a police officer for 30 years.

As foreseen the day had come. On the 19th of August in the afternoon at half past two, a black car halted, slamming on the brakes causing a dusty cloud, announcing indirectly that it was now my turn to do my time like any other Uyghur. From the loud voices and rude words of the men in the black and dirty car, I understood that they had come for me. Around me were people helping me to decorate the mother tongue school, my older brother and my friends. In order to prevent a clash between my loved ones and the policemen, I went to the car and got in instead of waiting for them to come and drag me out. As the car engine started, two men sitting on either side of me rushed to handcuff me behind my back and covered my head with a black hood.

I examined the cell for a while. It was besieged by the strong smell of moist and excrement. A raised seating that resembled the shape of a gun was installed; the trigger of the “gun” had a faucet and pipe; under the pipe a hole was seen. This hole, which was the source of the stench, was what they called a bathroom. All of a sudden Emetqari looked at me and said, “brother what you did was wrong, you can’t enter here by greeting me in our mother tongue. Instead we use the Chinese word baogao, which literally means “report”-, if the officer who brought you here wasn’t Uyghur, you would have been in real trouble and would have been beaten in that narrow corner. How many people hit you on the main gate?”

I was hoping that he wouldn’t ask me or at least that I would be able to avoid this question. I wished for nobody to know the humiliation that I had just experienced there. I felt the swallowed feelings of humiliation creeping up and blocking my throat, preventing me from breathing. I would have endured all the beatings and the numerous feet stepping on me, if only they hadn’t insulted and humiliated me. Though this was my first time in a Chinese prison I had heard what kind of punishments and tortures all Uyghurs who openly rejected slavery faced. Nevertheless, I was unaware and never even imagined that we would face this kind of abuse and insult.

That evil spirited “man” ordered me to get completely naked and when I was, he had me bent down like a donkey and smacked my bottom. The anger of not being able to retaliate made me bite my lips until they bled. Although I have imagined the way the Chinese officers treat the Uyghur prisoners, I’d never thought that it would be this way. I immediately grabbed my bottom after several slaps, and I heard them laughing out loud. I was trembling with anger and humiliation. Their condescending sneers and tone were the only thing I could see. They used the coarsest and most offensive language and made me repeatedly jump and bow down. For the Uyghurs I was a teacher, educator and an intellectual who only desired to protect and preserve Uyghur language and culture, but for them, I was a time bomb that could explode at any moment. Thus, I understood that being a Uyghur, having this identity and living with it was more than enough to a suspect.

The pale faced Chinese kept examining me as if there was something in my crotch. Finally, when all the “examinations” were completed, a grey coloured prison uniform was thrown at me. I rushed immediately to cover my private parts and thanked and praised God.

This was the ugly truth that I did not wish Emetqari or anybody to find out, and it would have been impossible to hold back the tears. I asked him for how long he had been here. He said it had been seven months. I was utterly astounded, and I couldn’t imagine spending seven months here, that was for me immensely long. As he was just about to start his second sentence, an announcement in Chinese came from the loudspeaker: “shut up, or should I make a dump/ shit in your mouth and shut you up”. After a while the light was turned off and the reek coming out of the corner that they referred to as toilet got stronger. Emetqari and I whispered and had a heart-to-heart talk all through the night.

The house of Emetqari was in the vicinity of the mother tongue nursery school that I wanted to open. It seemed his crime was teaching his kids at home. He had got married recently and had a new born child. I told him that the reason for my imprisonment was opening a Uyghur kindergarten. He hadn’t heard this before and didn’t understand the seriousness of the matter and said, “you’ll get out of here soon”. After hearing that I’d be taken to Urumqi the following morning, he was more assured and said: “you’ll be released!”. After all I wasn’t dressed in the special yellow uniform that every political prisoner is obliged to wear. Even though they didn’t classify me as a political prisoner, I told him that I was arrested by the state security forces of Kashgar and Urumqi. The next morning, we secretly said our morning prayers and then Emetqari said some other prayers, asking God to liberate us from this horrifying torment.

After being released from the prison in Urumqi, I thought of my first cellmate, Emetqari. He had told me that his wife and his child lived with his mother who was over seventy. Since he was sure of my release from the prison, he wanted me to convey some messages to his wife. According to him if a convict’s wife requests a divorce, a meeting between the parties is allowed, and Emetqari was hoping to meet his wife and child using this kind of excuse. In all the prisons that I have been, there was a whiteboard, on which the rights of the prisoners were written both in Chinese and Uyghur. Everyday prisoners had to memorise those and abide by them. Among the rights, the right to meet and see one’s family and relatives was clearly written, but I never saw it fulfilled. I was not released as Emetqari had hoped for. Perhaps he didn’t meet his wife and was even exiled. But I had always in my mind to visit his mother and wife and convey his message to them.

I found Emetqaris village. Everyone including young and old people were summoned for a meeting in the courtyard. On my way to the gate of the courtyard I was stopped by an armed man. He asked me what I was doing and asked for my ID. It was dangerous for me to give him my ID or to tell him that I came here on Emetqari’s instruction. If I gave him my ID, he would scan it with his hand held tool, which would disclose that I was once a prisoner and I would be imprisoned again. After my release from prison I had had a similar experience. At that time, I showed my ID and was imprisoned immediately, and experienced numerous sufferings. I was impelled to tell the police before me that I was appointed as a cadre for the neighbouring village. He told me that I had to show my ID no matter who I am. Thus, I stood in front of the gate as if I were waiting for someone.

In the courtyard, a collective play called “apple dance” which was a popular Chinese street dance in the modern coast cities, was being performed and then solo performances began. I learned, from a Uyghur lackey who just had a stick in his hand, that solo performers were from key families with a history of opposing the Chinese government. I asked if Emetqaris family was among these families. The tanned lackey looked at me from head to toe and pointed his finger at a lady on the stage and said, “he is the son of that woman”. On the stage a mother who looked like seventy or more was standing. A thick make-up was applied to her face, a fake flower was put behind her ear and she was dressed in a costume that was inappropriate for her age and ethnicity. The mother was frowning and she was unable to sing. She was trembling and holding a microphone and she said, “I would like to sing to everyone a song called “azat zaman” (liberal time). Apart from the cadres and some people in the audience, no one applauded. She was scared and her anxiety was very much manifested by her facial movements. She muttered and tried to raise her voice but was unable to do so. She then seemed to be ready to perform and opened her mouth to sing but suddenly she started to slap herself and cried out “can’t I die, can’t I die and remove myself from this humiliation, let me die, I regret being born as a human, I regret having a child like Emetqari” she said and sobbed. My eyes filled with tears. Once again, I bit my lips and I looked at the armed soldier walking around. If I tried to get hold of his weapon, I knew that I would be shot. That was the only step I haven’t yet had the courage to take.

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